How we forgot Pot Noodle, and fell for rock’n’roll ramen

Ross Shonhan didn’t just make noodles cool. With Bone Daddies, Shackfuyu and Flesh & Buns, he has masterminded a new style of cuisine

How must the makers of the Pot Noodle feel? There they were happily supplying instant snacks to an undiscerning student population when what they should clearly have been doing was opening a nationwide chain of noodle bars and knocking out chicken chow mein for a tenner. Little did they know it would be the food story of the decade.

It took more than a hundred years for the noodle bar to become the fast food outlet of choice in Japan, as restaurants that offered dishes like japanese burgers had always taken the popularity crown in those years, and still do in many areas now. Yet within a few years, ramen shops, as they are known, have taken a grip on our high streets. From Bournemouth to Glasgow and every student-heavy town in between, people are abandoning dehydrated noodles for the real thing, queuing to slurp their way through bowls of highly seasoned broth at exotically named restaurants such as Umami, Shoryu, Tonkotsu and Ippudo. We’ve some way to go before we reach the 35,000 ramen shops of Japan, but with numbers already in the hundreds this one-pot wonder is here to stay.

Ramen’s year zero in this country was only three years ago, in 2012. That was when Ross Shonhan, an Australian former head chef at Nobu and Zuma, opened Bone Daddies on a small site in Soho, central London. With its simple decor and communal seating, it became the blueprint for a new style of casual, wallet-friendly dining and now draws in more than 500 customers a day.

“Four or five of us opened at the same time, so there was clearly something in the air,” Shonhan remembers. Ramen had already reached New York, where restaurants such as David Chang’s Momofuku had gained cult status. “With the rise in social media I thought there would be a market for it because people travel so much more and they want to have what they see their friends having on the other side of the world. So I knew that if we got it right we’d have an audience.”

Ramen is composed of four elements: the broth, or stock; the noodles; meat and vegetables; and the tare, or seasoning. Within these parameters, the variations are endless, with each shop carefully guarding its secret recipes. “There’s no such thing as authentic ramen,” Shohan says. “It’s different everywhere you go. The starting point, though, is good bones.” Normally chicken or pork, these bones are boiled laboriously to break them down. “Once you’ve got your basic stock you can season your soup in all manner of ways: soy, salt, miso, spicy miso, tantan-men, kimchi base. That takes your bowl in a lot of different directions.” You could even try to make ramen at home by getting a ramen pack.

In August Shonhan will open his third Bone Daddies, in east London, but in the meantime has added two more Asian-styled London restaurants to his portfolio. Flesh & Buns, in Covent Garden, is themed around the Taiwanese bao, where diners assemble their own soft, rice-flour buns with roasted and grilled meat and fish and Japanese pickles, a kind of DIY Asian dirty burger. Shackfuyu, in Soho, specialises in yoshoku, which is effectively western food adapted by the Japanese in the 19th century and now re-exported to 21st-century London.

How we forgot Pot Noodle, and fell for rock'n'roll ramen 2

Shonhan is doing for Japanese food what the restaurateur Russell Norman has done for Italian: taking a simple offering, tweaking the flavours slightly for British palates and giving it just enough of a veneer of designer cool to get customers excited. Think no booking and fast turnover, set against a buzzing soundtrack.

“People have the image of Japanese restaurants as being super-sterile and very stiff and traditional and there is that side of it,” says Shonhan, “but there are also loads of drinking and socialising venues where the furniture is just an upturned Asahi beer crate. Equally, just as you’ve got chefs here messing with global food, the same is happening there. The food culture in Japan is as exciting and evolving as it is in London or New York.”

Growing up in the Australian outback, 36-year-old Shonhan’s only experience of Asian food was the inauthentic sweet and sour chicken he would occasionally have when visiting his grandmother on the Queensland coast, but after a stint at Asia de Cuba in London, he worked alongside Nobu at the Japanese celebrity chef’s Dallas restaurant.

Here he learnt to respect the simplicity of Japanese cooking. “Nobu was always telling me to take things off the plate.” Conversely, when he moved to Rainer Becker’s restaurant, Zuma, in London, he had to add more. “The first recipes I showed him were far too simple. Just not right.

“Sometimes [too much respect for] tradition and history puts blinkers on you, so people like me can approach Japanese food and make it palatable to westerners but also understand the roots and thought process behind it. Ultimately you want food to be exciting and delicious. It’s as simple as that.”

He hopes to bring Bone Daddies to more university towns in the near future (he mentions Bristol, Oxford and Cambridge as interesting locations), but thinks there are plenty more Japanese foods to popularise here. So what’s next?

“Grilled chicken in Japan is amazing,” he says. “There used to be a small yakitori restaurant in Soho that’s closed down. I’ve never seen a chicken butchery book in English, but I’ve seen them in Japanese. In English a thigh is a thigh. Bone in or bone out, skin on or skin off: that’s as far as it goes. In Japanese butchery they even dissect the different muscles of the thigh to use on different skewers. There’s nowhere like that any more in London. I think they were a couple of years ahead of their time and in this business it’s all about timing.”